Further discussion about The Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Here are the 10 myths that are discussed in The Top 10 Myths About Evolution by Cameron McPherson Smith and Charles Sullivan. I’ve added a couple of notes where I think the myth is unclear from the chapter title.

From your experiences in talking to people about evolution, have you found these to be the common misperceptions that people hold? If so, how do you talk about these issues?

Or have you found other misconceptions about evolution to be prominent? If so, what are the misconceptions you’ve run across most often?

Myth 1: Survival of the Fittest (basically the misunderstanding of this term, equating it to “might makes right.”)

Myth 2: It’s Just a Theory

Myth 3: The Ladder of Progress (evolution has a direction leading to more complex beings and man is the pinnacle of progress, keeping humans in the center of the universe)

Myth 4: The Missing Link

Myth 5: Evolution is Random

Myth 6: People Come from Monkeys

Myth 7: Nature’s Perfect Balance

Myth 8: Creationism Disproves Evolution

Myth 9: Intelligent Design is Science

Myth 10: Evolution is Immoral (or, actually, believing in evolution leads people to become immoral)


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Interesting, I've heard variations of those as well. How would you describe the "fitness landscape" to someone who has no background in science, biology, or evolution?

    The chapter about fitness is actually one I had some problems with because I could not stop thinking, "My creationist mother-in-law could not understand this." One of the questions I've asked the authors is about how to explain some of these issues to people who have absolutely no familiarity with the terminology or concepts — except, perhaps, through misinformation that has been pushed onto them by their church or anti-evolution tracts.

  2. Here's another one.

    Myth 13: Intelligent Design is a new theory.

    First, it's not a real theory because it isn't testable. Second, it isn't new. When Charles Darwin studied theology at Cambridge he lived in the rooms once inhabited by William Paley, who wrote the well known Argument from Design. Darwin was very enthusiastic about Paley's writing and utterly persuaded by this argument. As we all know, Darwin went out and found a better explanation for the appearance of design in nature, so it isn't that Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection because he wasn't aware of the alternative. He simply found intelligent design to be an inadequate explanation for his observations, and he explains this at great length in the Origin.

  3. I have one that's so general it may be off topic. Nevertheless, it's a pretty common belief, and I'm never sure how to address it:

    "Science is just one of many valid ways to arrive at knowledge."

    It's sort of true, sometimes. Certainly, we don't have the time to be scientifically rigorous with every decision we make, and we do muddle by despite that :p But this belief is often used to say, "Well, all of your science is well and good; everything you say makes sense. I'm going to ignore it, though, because science is just one approach."

    Is there anything one can do, other than throwing up your hands and deciding that the person who said that is simply refusing to listen?

  4. Yes, you can stop their heart (have fun picking the method – science knows more than a few!) and then refuse to defibrillate them until they concede as to how science might have a leg up on the competition when it comes to gathering reliable knowledge and putting it to use… well, maybe not. ;)

    Folks who do what you describe are woefully ignorant – the best thing you can do is point them to some general science primers (of which all the titles of those I own escape me right now…need coffee!) and then hope they read them and gain some understanding. Beyond that, if they continue to choose to believe that science is no more valid a method than any other method then there's not much you can do.

    I have a cousin like this… no matter how often I point out that almost everything he uses today, down the shirt on his back, is a product of science he still doesn't get it. He recently called me to tell me about that asinine movie 'the secret' (it doesn't deserve to be capitalized) and said, "Well, what do you think of that?!" I told him if the notions that piece of crud espoused were even remotely true I'd be millionaire, every psychic would be in jail, and his head would have just exploded…. he still persists in believing it's equally as accurate as any scientific view of the how the universe works.

  5. Myth 10a: Evolution is moral.

    No really, this is the fallacy of naturalism and is quite common e.g. choosing to be childless (or being gay) is immoral because we evolved by out-reproducing our competitors. Another one I’ve heard too often is that modern medicine and/or the modern lifestyle is bad because it allows maladpative traits to survive. (Well no, modern medicine changes the fitness landscape so that previously maladaptive stuff, like poor eyesight, stops being maladaptive because of glasses).

    Myth 11: Mammals came after dinosaurs

    Myth 12: Evolution is a theory of the origin of life

  6. Great discussion and I don't think it's off topic at all.

    I think the reason people say things like "Science is only one way of knowing," is that they have no clue what science really is. They think it's a) medicine, b) technology, or c) NASA.


  7. Donna's latest comment reminded me of this bit from Alan Sokal:

    The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology.

    Sokal goes on to point out that it's trivial to construct bad arguments against "science" by equivocation. You just have to take a valid critique of one sense and apply it to another. For example, the military (dominated by men) often uses technology for destructive ends. Therefore — sneakily switching from definition 4 to definition 1 — the method of hypothesis, experiment and cross-criticism is nothing but a tool of the phallocentric patriarchy.

    Linear is another one of those Humpty-Dumpty words which obfuscatory people take to mean whatever they want it to mean. Furthermore, because it too has a set of valid uses only loosely related through etymology, one can make an "argument" by taking a statement which is valid under definition 1 and criticize it using definition 3. I've had to sit through too many after-dinner speeches about "the paradigm of linear thought"; often, this sort of "cocktail talk" comes mixed with references to quantum mechanics and/or chaos theory forcing us to recognize "nonlinear science", about which we must apparently think in a nonlinear way. This cocktail talk is based on little more than equivocation. Glib assertions of social constructivists notwithstanding, one can deploy intuition, guesswork and other less-than-strictly "linear" thought techniques in solving a problem which uses only linear equations. (I'd argue that a big part of teaching physics involves stimulating students to do exactly this.)

  8. Beren,

    In that situation, I might try pointing out that the method of science is really just the refinement of the kind of reasoning we do in everyday life. If you’re trying to fix a broken car, you make a guess about what the problem is, figure out what that guess would imply, and go poking around to see if your guess was right. Science takes this practical, hard-nosed, “show me” approach and ups the ante: we adopt tried-and-true techniques to guard against fooling ourselves, and we develop mathematics to help us formulate our guesses and work out their consequences.

    Science is all about being streetwise with the Universe. We kick the tires of the Cosmos and lift up the hood, and all sorts of strange stuff comes out: protons and proteins, quarks and quasars. While the findings of science are very often exotic, the method we use to uncover them is pretty much your old-fashioned, no-nonsense Yankee ingenuity.

    If you can get this point across, you might have better luck in defeating the “alternate ways of knowing” gambit. I mean, can anyone say with a straight face that there are alternate, really radically alternate ways of fixing a broken pickup truck? Would we trust “alternate ways” to get the truth out of a used-car dealer? Or a crooked politician? Or do we dust off our fedora, put on our trenchcoat and follow the money?

    You can also try pointing out that almost all of those “alternate ways of knowing” lead to world views which are amazingly vain and egocentric. Science, by contrast, teaches us that we are one lifeform among hundreds of millions, living on a pale blue dot lost among the stars, making our way with courage and cleverness and curiosity. It may be disquieting to realize that even compared to our own home galaxy, our world is less momentous than a flea jumping on an elephant — and that our Milky Way is in turn the merest firefly against the Universe beyond. However, this realization is like a coin with two sides, both beneficial to our spirit. On one count, it teaches us humility and serves to counteract our baser drives of mad ego-inflation, while on the flip-side, the discovery that we are so small in a Cosmos so big means that our inquisitiveness and our curiosity are, in a very real way, as big as the Cosmos itself.

  9. Reminds me of a comment Roseanne Barr made to Deepak Chopra on Bill Maher’s show last Friday.

    “If I take everything you believe and $3.00 I could buy a gallon of gas.”

  10. First of all, excellent post Blake! The last paragraph reminds me of Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experiece, which I’m in the middle of reading. I also have read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, and definitely noticed the vanity vs. humility you point out. Which is strange, because most religions claim to value humility…

    Anyway, speaking of egocentrism, the Ladder of Progress myth has always bothered me. One of my favortie websites,, had a headline that said “Human brain still evolving”. All I could think when reading it was “ummm…. duh! It’s not like evolution just stopped with us!” But so many people seem surprised by that.

    Also, the It’s Just a Theory myth is definitely the most prevalent in my experience. It’s an easy way to write off the whole evolution thing without much thought. Of course, it’s not like it takes a whole lot of thought to understand how scientists use the term “theory” – but it’s still easier not to.

  11. Hi writerdd,
    To answer your question, as a highly trained astrophysicist I wouldn’t normally dare to explain any aspect of biology to anybody – and especially not on a blog like this where there are a people who know a zillion times more about the subject than I do. But since it’s either that or work …

    The “fitness landscape” is just another way of describing the fact that some physical forms (phenotypes) are better adapted to their environment than others. You could imagine plotting a graph, say, of visual acuity against reproductive success. Too bad eyesight and you keep mating with trees and produce no offspring. Too _good_ eyesight and you waste energy building a big brain to process all that useless information – great for long-distance bird-spotting maybe, but a not a good reproductive strategy. Somewhere in the middle is a little peak of optimum reproductivity.

    Put a population of people with different visual abilities into the system and over time the population will evolve until they sit near the top of the peak.

    Suppose now we intervene by inventing spectacles, or putting people in an advanced technological society where eyesight isn’t even 100% necessary at all to survive. What happens? Well the landscape changes. Perhaps the peak is still there but has now moved further towards the low-visual-acuity end of the graph. Then over time the population will readjust towards the new peak.

    The naturalistic fallacy is the claim that this is a bad thing because it’s “unnatural”, or because it “puts evolution in reverse” or because it “weakens the gene pool”.

    Actually none of these are true. For the one thing, the fitness landscape is always determined by a combination of the physical environment, the biological environment and the social environment. It’s different between polar dwellers than tropical peoples and different between settled peoples and nomads. We’ve been changing the fitness landscape since we started banging rocks together and that’s the way world is: it’s as natural a process as any other.

    So are we reversing evolution? No, that’s a meaningless concept. We continue to evolve according to the environment we find ourselves in. If we change that environment (deliberately or accidentally) then we change the fitness landscape and hence the direction that evolution proceeds in. But evolution always increases the fitness of the population, it’s just the definition of fitness that changes.

    Is this a good thing? No. Is this a bad thing? No. It’s just the way things work.

  12. Don't forget the "747 in a junkyard" myth (and the related "cat turn into a dog" one) – the idea that evolution causes new species to come about within one birth (or generation) – basically the idea that if we came from chimpanzees (I know, that's not how it is, but this is what many creationists think evolution says) then that means a chimpanzee gave birth to a fully modern human.

    As for "evolution is immoral", I recently read Marc Hauser's "Moral Minds" – where he discusses the idea that morality is like language, in that we have a set of moral parameters that are modified byu our culture, upbringing, environment, etc. A lot of references and info on studies on animals that are very interesting (esp in primates where the basics of human morality can be found). A bit tought at times, but overall a very interesting book.

  13. Badger3k, I think the cat birthing a dog is directly related to the "micro" versus "macro" evolution BS that some IDists spout, because they have a complete misunderstanding of species. I would nominate that for the top 5 myths, at least.

  14. @Writerdd: The problem with this is that the anti-evolutionists either innocently, yeah right, or deliberately, interpret it incorrectly to only refer to the individual. In fact it should be explained that it is actually about the fitness of the species as a whole in relation to its environment. I.e. the ability of the species to cope with the environment and especially to any changes in it. Where humans, and those they evolved from, have been particularly successful is in their adaptability to changing and different environments.

    Of course there is an element of individual fitness, but this is only relevant internal to the species. I.e. the male perceived as the fittest in any group often has a greater advantage of passing on his genes by usually getting first pick of the females. In the past, it may have been something like hunting skills that gave them a perceived advantage in the survival stakes to any potential mate. Today, at least in the west, there are other attributes which matter, such as earning power. However, even in todays world with all its tribal problems, as has been also true historically, the one thing that makes humans successful as a species is their cooperation. Which actually negates the very use the anti-evolutionists make of the concept of the survival of the fittest.

  15. John,

    I'm sorry, but fitness in biology is defined in individual terms, and no one has ever successfully shown that natural selection operates at any level higher than the individual.

  16. Scott Adams (of Dilbert cartoon fame) has a blog post today showing (in my humble opinion) a classic misunderstanding of how evolution progresses. Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience to deal with most of the commenters on his site.

    I like the comment from the person who thinks evolutionary theory is too simplistic. Too simplistic for him to get his head around apparently. Lots of things seem simplistic if you don’t understand them.

  17. The basics of reproduction, variation, and natural selection are quite simple, actually. That’s why I think that anyone who doesn’t “believe in” evolution, has probably never read anything about it besides anti-evolution propaganda. The basic idea is so simple, that to think it’s not true requires extreme mental gymnastics.

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